Red Flags to Watch For in Job Interviews

by Meg Embry
• 5 min read
TheBestSchools.org

So you got an interview: This could be your dream job, or it could be a nightmare.

29% of workers have quit a job in the first 90 days.

If you're lucky, you'll know that a job isn't right for you before you accept it. In some cases, the interviewer might even tell you so:

"During one phone interview, the guy said they were looking for someone who wasn't too ambitious," said Jacob Ervin, who now works as an analyst at Texas Woman's University. "Then he said I seemed 'a little too on the ball' and ended the interview."

Usually the signs aren't so clear. So how do you avoid a nightmare job you'll just have to quit later?

TheBestSchools.org heard from over 150 people about red flags in job interviews that sent them running for the hills.

Red Flags in Job Interviews

1. Too Many Corporate Buzzwords

We've all seen the cringey ads calling for "gurus," "rockstars," and "ninjas." In fact, the use of "ninja" in job postings increased by 90% between 2017 and 2018 alone. But what does a corporate ninja even do?

Often, corporate buzzwords are just a cheerful veneer for something a lot less glamorous.

So if your interviewer uses any of these phrases, beware. The company might not be as fun to work for as it sounds.

Buzzwords Translation
"We're like a family here." "We don't have boundaries."
"You'll wear lots of hats." "We will only pay you for one of those hats."
"Hustle" / "Grind" "We don't care about work-life balance."
"We like things done a certain way." "We will micromanage the hell out of you."
"We want someone hungry." "This job pays almost nothing."
"We are looking for a self-starter." "We have no onboarding process; good luck figuring things out on your own."

2. Late or Unprepared Interviewer

If an interviewer is late, unprepared, or constantly rescheduling, their company probably doesn't value employee time.

"I turned down one job because the [interview] process was so disorganized. They scheduled a time for an interview with HR, but didn't tell HR. No one was available, and I had to wait an hour."
Laura Nichols

"It was a real turn off when I discovered the interviewers hadn't even skimmed my resume. If a potential employer is showing a lack of interest, that is a huge sign that you will not be respected in the workplace."
Jeffrey Zhou, CEO, Fig Loans

3. Vague Descriptions

If the responsibilities of the position are not clearly defined, that can signal wider structural dysfunction within the company.

If someone says, "We will figure out your duties as we go," they probably mean, "We will add unrelated tasks to your plate until you burn out. Also, there is no way to evaluate your performance, and there is no clear path to promotion."

Run.

"When a job interviewer doesn't tell you exactly what your job is, there are only two possible reasons: They don't know or they don't want you to know. Needless to say, both of these are extremely worrisome."
Lachlan Brown, Founder and Editor, Hack Spirit

4. Unprofessional Behavior

Negative or inappropriate comments — especially about previous hires — should give you pause.

"Any off-color remark from the person interviewing you or a problematic comment from someone working in the organization is a red flag. If you encounter any disrespectful behavior on display, directed at you or someone else, assume that it is normalized in the organization."
Joe Flanagan, Senior Employment Advisor, Velvet Jobs

5. Chaotic Process

If the hiring process is confusing or disorganized, it's probably not the only process the company is too lazy to build out. If communication is bad now, it will be worse later.

"I wish I hadn't ignored signs about the company's truly poor communication during the interview process. This came back to bite me two years later when I failed to meet a crucial deadline because it was not communicated to me on time. I took responsibility, but submitted my resignation within a week."
Katherine Brown, Founder and Marketing Director, Spyic

6. Takes Forever

The average hiring process takes 23.8 days, so if you're waiting weeks or months between Zoom interviews, you're probably dealing with an inefficient or overwhelmed organization.

An unnecessarily drawn-out process can also be a red flag.

"Interviewing should not feel like cruel and unusual punishment. I interviewed at a tech firm for an executive assistant position. The process consisted of multiple rounds of interviews and four different behavioral and performance assessments. The process made me rethink my application. Chances are, the company's culture would be just as rigid, demanding, and frustrating."
Eden Cheng, Founder, WeInvoice

7. High Company Turnover

High turnover can be a sign of unhappy employees or a toxic workplace.

"The biggest red flag I ignored at my last job — which was a pretty toxic environment — was that most of the people at the company were new. I assumed the company was growing and replacing staff that had been laid off during a recent economic downturn. I quickly learned that I was wrong. Turnover was actually extremely high because of micromanagement and overworking."
Tony Martins, Founder, Profitable Venture

8. Won't Answer Your Questions

Remember: An interview is your chance to learn more about this company. So if an interviewer can't or won't answer your questions, steer clear.

"I asked the interviewer what made him a good leader and what made this a good company to work for. He clearly avoided answering the questions. I ignored my gut and took the job anyway. I regretted it."
Peter Erlandsson, Founder and Chief Editor, All Guitar Stuff

"I recommend asking, 'What do you like most about working here?' If people take a long time to answer or can't think of something to say, that should ring alarm bells. If they can't say why they like working there, they probably don't. If they don't, will you?"
Andrei Kurtuy, Co-Founder and CCO, Novoresume

"If they can't tell you what the growth path looks like for you, it's because they have no interest in developing you."
Maggie Leung, Executive Editor at a16z

9. Gives Bad Answers

Other times, the interviewer's answers will tell you everything you need to know.

"I interviewed at a coffee business. I asked about sustainability and their farmers. The CEO said that their job is to meet the customer's needs, not tend to the wellbeing of the links along the chain.

"My gut said: They won't care about employees either. I would just be just one more faceless, nameless link."

Julia Bobak, Creative Director of Content at Home Grounds

"I recently asked about the company's plans to retain diverse talent, and an interviewer said to 'ask HR.' I just said, 'Ok, thanks. That was my last question for you.' And it truly was."
Ana Cantu, Internal Communications, Google

10. Lowball Offer

More than half of employers offer low salaries, expecting candidates to negotiate. But some have no intention of paying more — and every intention of paying less.

They may pull a bait-and-switch by offering a lower-paid role than the one you applied for or offering a terrible salary with the promise of a promotion or pay increase in the future.

If an employer isn't willing to pay what you're worth now, why would they be willing to later?

"Beware anyone who says the job makes up for what it pays with the prestige of the beat. I fell for that once right out of college, not knowing any better, and agreed to only $23,000 a year."
Jack Klemme, Writer, The Ledger Independent

11. Requests Free Work

Take-home interview assignments have become a common practice. But beware of any requests for unpaid work that take a long time.

"If you are asked to come back with a presentation you know will take more than an hour to complete, demand a consultant fee. If the interviewer balks, terminate the interview process. They aren't interested in hiring; they just want free consulting."
April Helms, Reporter, Gannett

"I once had to do a full-day 'trial' at a newspaper for free. They published my stories. I didn't get the job."
Stacy Malkan, Co-Founder and Managing Editor, US Right to Know

At the end of the day, listen to your gut. Not every red flag is a deal breaker, but if something feels off, it probably is.

If you need help with resume templates, salary negotiation advice, or wage comparisons of different careers across the country, check out our career hub.

Meg Embry is a Colorado-based writer for TheBestSchools.org covering higher education. She is an award-winning journalist who has lived and worked in Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States.

Header Image Credit: Tetra Images, Cecilie_Arcurs | Getty Images

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